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With Roe v. Wade overturned, medication abortions take center stage

ABC News logo ABC News 6/24/2022
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With the overturning of Roe v. Wade Friday by the Supreme Court, the power to decide abortion access now depends on individual states.

As of today, nearly half of the nation's 50 states are prepared to ban all or nearly all abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health policy research organization.

The increasing likelihood of abortion restrictions across the country has put the attention on medication abortions, which rely on pills, rather than surgery, to terminate the pregnancy.

Usually two drugs -- mifepristone and misoprostol -- are used in combination to induce the abortion.

In 2020, the number of medication abortions exceeded the number of surgical abortions for the first time, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

In "self-managed" cases of medication abortion, women do not undergo their abortions in a formal health care setting, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

That’s in contrast with “supervised” cases where women undergo their abortions under the watchful eye of supervising clinicians. Currently, 19 states require clinicians to be physically present when the medication is administered, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

MORE: Major US abortion pill producer says it has ample supply if demand soars

Under the Supreme Court's ruling, each state will be able to determine access to medication abortion for its residents. If states ban or restrict abortion, that will include medication abortion.

Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, May 4, 2022 in Washington. A draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide. © AP Photo/Alex Brandon Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, May 4, 2022 in Washington. A draft opinion suggests the U.S. Supreme Court could be poised to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide.

Because of legislation in states like Texas and Oklahoma that criminalizes abortion and puts health care providers who facilitate it at legal risk, pursuing a medication abortion increasingly means self-managing the process without medical supervision, Alina Salganicoff, director of women’s health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, told ABC News.

Sometimes, that’s meant crossing international borders into Mexico or Canada to obtain pills.

MORE: Oklahoma governor signs 6-week abortion ban into law

"I think there’s no question that people seeking abortions will look into any option," Salganicoff told ABC News, "Just because you ban an abortion doesn’t mean women won’t continue to seek them."

Medication abortion by mail

More often, that’s meant turning to the postal service.

In July 2020, following a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Food and Drug Administration temporarily suspended restrictions allowing mifepristone to be delivered by mail. Last December, the FDA permanently lifted those restrictions.

FILE People protest after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, preparing for a majority of the court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision later this year, in New York City, U.S., May 3, 2022 © Yana Paskova/Reuters FILE People protest after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, preparing for a majority of the court to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights decision later this year, in New York City, U.S., May 3, 2022

There are now numerous companies and international pharmacies devoted to shipping pills, according to Plan C, an information portal for self-managed abortion services.

Some companies even ship to a handful of states -- like Arizona and Texas -- where mailing abortion pills is illegal.

The number of pills currently being sent through the mail is difficult to track, Abigail Aiken, an associate professor in health policy at the University of Texas at Austin, told ABC News.

Requests for the medication by mail have skyrocketed in Texas since the legislation. One study found that, after the passage of the law, requests sent to Aid Access -- the country’s largest telehealth abortion provider -- leapt 10-fold in the week after it was enacted. Daily requests remained twice as high as the pre-legislation baseline over the next three months, after which point the researchers stopped tracking.

MORE: FDA lifts restriction on abortion pill, permanently allowing delivery by mail

"I think we can see that making abortion illegal doesn’t limit the need for abortion," said Aiken, also the lead investigator on the study. "It just shifts where individuals can find care."

Data on information seeking for self-managed abortions acquired by ABC News suggests these patterns in Texas may foreshadow broader trends across the country.

In the week after the Supreme Court’s draft decision on abortion leaked in May, page views and overall users on Plan C's website increased seven-fold. The number coming from states with Texas copycat laws leapt further still: page views from users in Idaho increased 23-times, and page views from those in Oklahoma increased 18-times, according to Elisa Wells, co-director of Plan C.

Safety of medication abortion

The good news about self-managed medication abortions, Aiken told ABC News, is that they appear safe and effective for most women who use them early in pregnancy.

Recent U.S.-based studies have reported that up to 96% of women undergoing self-managed medication abortions before 10 weeks of gestation successfully terminated their pregnancy.

Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington. © AP Photo/Alex Brandon Demonstrators protest outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Washington.

But doctors fear that the success rates will likely be lower in women who turn to the medications in lieu of other options who are further along in their pregnancy. The later the pregnancy, the higher risk that something will go wrong for women attempting self-managed medication abortions - including blood infections that can be life-threatening without urgent medical care, experts said.

"I have some concern that … regardless of whether their self-assessment [for gestational age] says they’re eligible, they’ll use the pills—because they’re desperate,” Daniel Grossman, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of California San Francisco, told ABC News.

In Texas, women like Lizelle Herrera have already been arrested under murder charges after their abortions came to light.

Seeking medical care could similarly leave them vulnerable to criminal prosecution, Sepper told ABC News, which would further discourage them from seeking care.

If women with abortions who need care avoid it out of concern for legal consequences, it could endanger their health, Grossman told ABC News.

Despite all the potential upsides of medication abortions, the risk of undue death is what advocates fear most. Especially, since abortion seekers are disproportionately from groups that already face the highest rates of maternal death, including communities of color.

"We know that when abortion is illegal, it doesn’t make it less common, it just makes it less safe," Danika Severino Wynn, vice president of abortion access at Planned Parenthood, told ABC News. "When we push people further into the shadows, it means we are undoubtedly making their care more dangerous."

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